To those in the British climbing scene, Mark Katz is a name synonymous with the explosion of bouldering in the country over the past three decades. A keen developer, he has also repeated many of the U.K.'s hardest lines, and featured in the iconic bouldering film Stick It. Despite his impact on the North Wales scene, and later Yorkshire, he has largely stayed out of the spotlight, choosing instead to climb around his teaching career.
Over the past two decades you've been a prolific developer and repeated a wide range of world class problems. Which of those stand out to you as key moments of progression in your climbing?
It's not easy to define a world class problem or decide which would fit into that sort of category. I think that the best problems I've done have always had common elements like excellent rock quality, unusual holds, a height that makes them tricky to try or allows a number of moves. They also follow great features like proud aretes or unique shapes and usually they are plumb obvious in the centre of an area or in contrast skulk around in the shadows waiting for you to turn the corner. I always think that the history of a problem has a part to play as well. Stories or anecdotes connected to a climb and the person who opened it can add to its aura. You know when you've climbed one, no matter where it is.
I'm not sure these problems represent progression in my climbing but they certainly give me fond memories of climbing really well and that little bit of magic that sometimes allows you to get to the top:
Karma 8a+ (V12), Franchard Cuisinere, Fontainebleau
A real sea change for me in terms of what I thought I could climb. Powerful, subtle and one of the best in the forest. Fred and Jackie in 'that' photo, the Real Thing...maybe the beginning and the end for me in 2005.
Misericorde 7c+ (V10), Franchard Cuisinere, Fontainebleau
So close on the flash. Climbed on my second go at the end of a great day in the forest in 2008. I'd already climbed L'Arrache Coeur 7c (V9) and De Vita Beata 8a (V11) and was on a roll. For me, this is a world class problem that is within a lot of people's budget.
Partage 8a+ (V12), Buthiers, Fontainebleau
Perfect. Compression and hand strength. Second try and obviously climbing well that February half-term in 2008!
Midnight Lightning 7b+ (V8), Camp 4, Yosemite
Failed on this when I was a youth in 2000. Quite big and the mantle is intimidating as hell. The history of the problem balances out the 'developed' nature of the holds and I couldn't leave Yosemite in 2014 having not climbed it.
Thriller 7c+ (V10), Camp 4, Yosemite
I'd wanted to try this since I saw a picture of it in an old article by Kevin Worrall on bouldering in Yosemite. Great holds, a clean and high wall, Moffat and Kauk and tucked away a little. It took me a week of bouldering in the Valley to just psyche myself up to try it because I had wanted to climb it so much. I cocked up the start and dropped off, sat in the sun and focused and did it second try. Perfect February weather in Yosemite which almost felt like cheating and I climbed The Force 7c (V9) and Stick It 8a (V11) later the same day in 2014.
High Fidelity 8b (V13), Caley, Yorkshire
The fifth ascent in 2011 and the best hard problem on gritstone in my opinion. A great feature, highball and has some proper pulling on positive holds. In November 2010 I knew I could do it as the middle section had clicked but I had to wait to January for a next session to try it because of poor winter weather. I screamed so loud at the top that I lost my voice. A real gem and big respect to Steve Dunning for opening the problem. It will get flashed at some point.
How have you seen the sport change over the last three decades? Do you think that with the sport's growth, particularly indoors, there has been an increase in the chasing of grades rather than capturing those experiences and their historic significance?
I think that certainly some climbers who are reasonably new to climbing and have improved rapidly because of indoor walls have missed the sort of apprenticeship that climbers of my generation had. My first experience of climbing was with multi pitch routes in North Wales; wet crags, sliding around in trainers and taking ages to climb very little. That sort of start certainly forces the question of whether it's for you. I distinctly remember thinking, "This is grim and I don't really like it", but it also puts you in a position to start with the right mindset. It's the process and experience that counts and not necessarily the outcome. No matter how strong or talented a climber is, if they don't know that they'll never find satisfaction or sustain a love of climbing. It's funny, I was chatting to a young climber at the climbing wall the other week and he was talking about going to Rocklands because he thought he could climb a Font 8b (V13) boulder problem there as the climbing would suit his style. I tried to ask him why that grade was so important and why that sort of quick or guaranteed reward was so important but it seemed to pass him by.
I suppose that turning 40 and having been climbing for nearly 30 years I can now be a bit more philosophical. I know that when I was younger grades really mattered, I was painfully competitive and focused but I always enjoyed climbing. I soaked it up, loved the process of pushing myself and wanted to know more about the history of climbing and climbers. In a way the grumpy half of me hates climbing being referred to as a sport, hates the coach/team nonsense at indoor walls and the desperate attempts by some to turn climbing into a living or sellout to questionable sponsors. On the other hand rock climbing has always changed and evolved rapidly over the last hundred odd years and that is an inevitable part of something being so great to get involved in.
It can be hard to continue sport at a high level as time goes by and other aspects of life get int the way. What do you think made you continue to push yourself in climbing over the past 30 years? Were there ever moments where the grind of training or projecting became too much?
Certainly. When you get into your late 30s and 40s it's tough to see improvement. It's right that life does get in the way, but that can be a good thing. Over the last 10 or so years I've had breaks from climbing to renovate our house or teaching has got really busy or I ran a little bit or I went sport climbing. In hindsight I should have had maybe a few more breaks, you come back keen and more willing to push yourself, although at the time you often can feel that it's crazy and frustrating to have taken a step back.
The best thing about working full-time is that you're always keen. I love training and trying hard and when I'm on it, I never lose motivation. I have a little mantra which I've written on my training board in the cellar" "Always do something". No matter how knackered I am from work or whatever, I've got to do a bit. I've always got a huge respect for people who work 'properly' full-time and still push themselves. It's a tough ask but extra special if you manage to get up a few things.
The last few years have certainly taught me that I need to train specifically now. The good old days of 'do a bit and see results' are definitely gone. I get so little time outside that I need to be far more prepared before I start a project rather than in the past when I could have had as many sessions as I wanted. My main motivation is to climb well though. I hate being mentally tired from work or not having trained enough or just having not been climbing enough. I've had the odd trip or period of time when I've struggled but usually it's given me "a kick up the arse" to try harder.
This last month has been a brilliant life changer though as I've just become a dad and life has just got a lot more busy! I feel good though after a summer of training and if I can get the right balance I'm sure that I'll be back after it this season.
You've managed to balance your climbing with your teaching career and now fatherhood. When it comes to that preparation for projects outside, how do you structure your training?
I'm completely clueless. People love banging on about training these days but to be honest there's a lot of nonsense talked. Malcolm Smith has said that there was no secret to his training he just did a lot of it and I think that's probably the best approach. Identify a weakness in a totally objective way and try to improve it. I don't train enough to warrant too much rest, so I do something most nights in the week. Sometimes you need someone else to notice things to work on and then give it a go. The best thing is to climb with other people who are stronger than you and then the competition will encourage improvement. It also helps with being mentally tough for when you are having a hard time or getting shut down on projects. I train a lot in my cellar on the fingerboards and I have some small campus rungs and pinch balls. I've also been using a set of rings which has improved my strength on the wide and my appalling posture. Over the summer I got some micros and have tried to improve my finger strength with repeaters and slightly weighted hangs and this has certainly worked. The 6mm are fierce.
Most people aren't that fit for sessioning hard problems and I think that some decent conditioning is important but you have to keep it simple. I do a lot of sit ups and press ups in various forms and go at it pretty hard. It's so infrequent that I'm in project mode these days that it's hard to say what works or what doesn't. Building a rough replica is useful for recruitment and feeling snappy on the board is good for confidence. I've started to feel that once I get a bit of structure and try something new that I start off being totally rubbish but I improve over a few weeks and then flit and try something else when I should give it a few more weeks in order to really consolidate any improvement.
Getting a balance between training for a project and trying a project is important. A few people are a bit guilty of hiding behind training when actually they should be getting on things. Once the moves click on a project I know I'll do it but there have been a few that have caused multi season epics but hey! I suppose the most useful thing is working full time. I can't get out too much so I train in the week and get out at weekends and keep it simple. Working has maybe limited me in terms of climbing harder than Font 8b (V13) but then again maybe I couldn't anyway. I'm still motivated to train and get better plus I'm 40 in a few days time so I have the Veterans category to train for. Anyway it's 10pm, Brenig is finally asleep so it's time for an hour in the cellar. It won't be pretty so I'll hold fire on the insta selfies.
It's funny you should mention that. Over the past two decades the sport has seen a shift from ascents being captured on VHS for the likes of Stick It or Rampage, to real time coverage on Instagram or Facebook. What do you think of the impact social media has had to the sport?
Yes definitely, social media has really changed climbing in a lot of different ways. When I was a teenager growing up in the Midlands I'd wait each month for the latest On The Edge magazine for the climbing news and I'd worn the print off David Jones' The Power of Climbing. Now you can find out about the latest news before it has been done, it seems. Stick It has become a bit of a U.K. classic which is nice, especially for Ben Pritchard and Rich Heap who were really keen to capture the bouldering scene at the time and they made a really unique, well done and typically British film. I'm pleased to have been a part of it.
Now though everyone wants to capture their successes and tell their story. Sometimes it feels like social media has become a platform for people to promote themselves and that's their main motivation rather just enjoying getting better at climbing. Don't get me wrong, I post pictures and get involved in bits of filming but that's always been a byproduct rather than a motivation to climb.
It's also hard to approach a problem without having seen footage of others climbing it and I think that this has really changed bouldering in a fundamental way. I've used online footage to help with sequences and sometimes it can unlock whole problems. It's a shame though that now some people can't climb a problem without seeing footage first. It totally speeds up the process and certainly makes things easier. A session can verge on the ridiculous at times when you head out bouldering and people are toting cameras, boom arms, drones, tripods and battery powered fans etc...whatever happened to a small mat, shoes and a towel? It's all good though, great shots and exciting footage can inspire and encourage you to get out and try something new, which is great.
Other than the odd appearance in the likes of Stick It, it seems like you've always shied away slightly from that type of media limelight. Was that a conscious decision? Do you think the kind of constant exposure and pressure social media now brings could be damaging to younger climbers coming through?
Appearing in Stick It was just by chance as Ben Pritchard and Rich Heap had come to North Wales to film Floppy (Chris Davies) on some of his stuff and I just tagged along. We went to the Llanberis Pass for Jerry's Roof and the Wavelength stuff and over to Parisella's Cave. I had a total epic on Rockatrocity but the Mr Fantastic footage turned out really well. I've fond memories of that time, I was mad about bouldering and getting stronger. I climbed with some really impressive folk in that period and I learnt a lot. I climbed with the Swiss Tresch brothers (Michi and Ivan) and the American Randy Puro on a three month trip to Bishop. They were really strong and Michi particularly had a big influence on me in terms of approach and technique. I climbed with Jerry Moffat in North Wales when he was trying to get the first ascent of what was to become Pool Of Bethesda. Climbing on Jerry's Roof with Jerry Moffat! I couldn't believe it. The North Wales mafia were also really motivating; Simon Panton, Paul Higginson, Floppy, Gav Foster and Nodder (Dave Noden), who is one of my closest mates. Recently I've been in a few bits that Dan Turner has filmed and I really enjoyed that. Although I take the piss out of his drone and boom arm, he's a really creative and enthusiastic guy, totally addicted to bouldering and one of the strongest and most good natured guys I've climbed with.
It's funny though, I've been in a few climbing films and pictures in the media and I still receive shoes from Scarpa, but I made a conscious decision at an early stage that climbing was more important than making it a job or trying to push myself into the limelight for some sort of reward or notoriety. It's nice if people respect you for being dedicated and reasonably successful at something that you love but I know how good I am at climbing and I certainly never wanted to be a professional. I think it's sad that some professional climbers push their achievements into the spotlight as an all too cliched media package and their climbing is quite often not that impressive. It also makes me laugh when you hear of climbers getting grumpy about sponsorship and at the same time doing very little to publicise themselves. If you want to be professional you have to be willing to embrace every part of that. Anyway, it's the full-timers who still climb well that inspire me.
Like most young people, younger climbers are no doubt influenced by social media. It's such a double edged sword, informative and inspiring on the one hand and outrageously false on the other. Young climbers need to know that climbing is about getting out, being keen and meeting others who share this crazy, consuming passion. If people who are new to climbing don't find that side of climbing they're just setting themselves up for a hard time. Climbing can be frustrating and demoralising and all too easy to drift out of if you're not in it for the right reasons.